For a century now we have honoured the sacrifice of the millions of men slaughtered or wounded on the battlefields of Europe and beyond in that ‘Great War’ to end all wars. Europe abounds with memorials and graveyards, yet little mention has been made of the role of women, and one woman in particular – Dr Elsie Maude Inglis.
A qualified doctor and surgeon, and prominent in the Suffragette Movement, she was determined to play a part in the First World War. This extraordinary woman didn’t take up arms or fight in the conventional sense, but took on and overcame the British Establishment for the right to mend and heal the casualties of war by founding the Scottish Women’s Hospital for Foreign Service
Told by the War Office to “… go home and sit still” she was invited by France to set up a battlefield hospital unit run entirely by women. The London Suffrage Society financed Inglis and eighty women to support Serbian soldiers fighting for the allies and during the First World War arranged fourteen such medical units to serve in France, Serbia, Corsica, Salonika, Romania, Russia and Malta. One government official who saw the doctors and nurses working in Russia remarked that: “No wonder Scotland* is a great country if the women are like that.”
Although she died in Newcastle on her journey home to the city of her upbringing, ‘Her people brought her back to the city of her fathers…Over her hung the torn banners of Scotland’s history. On her coffin, as she lay looking to the east in high St Giles’, were placed the flags of Great Britain and Serbia.’ After the funeral service, the coffin was placed on a gun-carriage.
‘Across the Water of Leith the long procession wound its way. Within sight of the grave it was granted to her grateful brethren, the representatives of the Serbian nation, to carry her coffin, and lower it to the place where the mortal in her was to lie in its last rest.’
Arthur Balfour, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs commented on her death: “Elsie Inglis was a wonderful compound of enthusiasm, strength of purpose and kindliness. In the history of this World War, alike by what she did and by the heroism, driving power and the simplicity by which she did it, Elsie Inglis has earned an everlasting place of honour.”
One can only surmise as to the number of troops whose lives were saved by Inglis and her colleagues, and marvel at the number of their descendants alive today: thousands, perhaps tens of thousands.
Although Edinburgh was to honour her with the creation of the Elsie Inglis Memorial Maternity Hospital in 1925 (with surplus funds arising from disbandment of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service, which she herself had formed)it was closed in 1988. There is the odd plaque in her name dotted throughout the city and even a short cul-de-sac – the Elsie Inglis Way – near the site of the former memorial hospital, but nothing substantive. In Serbia, they have street names, exhibitions, museums and even some new facilities named after, not just Elsie Inglis, but a number of the other women who served in the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. In 2015 Dr Inglis and five other female volunteers were honoured by appearing on commemorative Serbian stamps. Since there are more than 43 statues of men in Edinburgh city centre but only two statues of women – one of Queen Victoria and one of a female victim of apartheid – might now be the time for us to honour this truly remarkable woman in her native city. To this end, and to honour the links she created with Serbia, proceeds from the newly-designed SPIRIT of SERBIA tartan will go the trust established to fund a statue to Elsie Inglis. They will be shared with Hospices of Hope a charity that embodies Elsie Inglis’s selfless dedication to humanity.
Founded by Graham Perolls in 1991 Hospices of Hope has seen the organisation develop from very small beginnings into the leading hospice care organisation in South East Europe. Their latest project – the BELhospice in Belgrade – is now underway, and is the first purpose-built hospice in Serbia. One of the wards will be named after Dr Elsie Inglis.
The Spirit of Serbia tartan will be launched on International Women’s Day on 8th March.
For more information about Hospice of Hope go to https://www.hospicesofhope.co.uk
For more information on the life and work of Dr Elsie Inglis see: ‘Between the Lines: Letters and Diaries from Elsie Inglis’s Russian Unit’ by Audrey Fawcett Cahill published by The Pentland Press